Dahn Yoga stretches into controversy

Adherents of Dahn Yoga praise its approach to body and mind. But others say they were pressured about money and commitment.

Albuquerque Tribune/March 15, 2006
By Maggie Shepard

As Monica Demarco drove away from the Dahn Yoga retreat center near Sedona, Ariz., and headed back to Albuquerque in December, she didn't feel the peace the masters had promised. She also hadn't learned martial arts, as promised.

Instead, she felt victimized by what she now calls a cult, complete with a supreme leader who drives a bright yellow Hummer and has followers who cry when he enters a room.

Hers isn't the first, nor the most serious, accusation against the international Dahn Yoga enterprise, which in the past two years has opened three centers in Albuquerque and a club on the University of New Mexico campus.

In a Google search of Dahn Yoga, posts comparing the practice with a cult pop up on the first page. "Be careful," warns a posting on yoga.com.

In New York state, a family is suing the Dahn enterprise on behalf of Julia Siverls, 41. According to the lawsuit, Siverls died from heat stroke and dehydration during a master training hike at the Sedona center in 2003.

Dahn Yoga spokeswoman Charlotte Connors, based in Sedona, wouldn't comment on the lawsuit but said the organization is not a cult. She said it's a profitable business dedicated to bringing peace to the Earth, individual by individual, using methods developed by Dahn founder Ilchi Lee.

Worldwide, Dahn Yoga has about 200,000 "satisfied customers" who participate in the physical, mental and spiritual training program by choice, she said.

She wouldn't give profit numbers but said the 147 centers and 50,000 members in the United States are "a pretty good estimation" of the enterprise's worth.

Another 400 or so centers and an additional 150,000 members are registered in other nations. Connors could not give numbers for participants in New Mexico.

She said Demarco and others who are concerned that Dahn might be a cult have probably mistaken leaders' and other participants' enthusiasm about the training program for something else.

"It's pretty compelling and pretty exciting. I think that creates a lot of enthusiasm. So I can see how maybe that could be misinterpreted," Connors said.

The Dahn way

What started as group physical and energy exercise in a South Korean park in the late 1970s has grown into a network of for-profit businesses and nonprofit entities.

Dahn Yoga came to the United States in 1991 in Philadelphia, according to dahnyoga.com.

Dahn Yoga is not certified by the national yoga accreditation group Yoga Alliance, but alliance President Hansa Knox said it's typical to have new forms of practices branch off the traditional East Indian yoga practice.

Dahn, she said, incorporates Japanese-style martial arts and meditative elements. It isn't accredited, she said, because Dahn master schooling doesn't meet the alliance's 200-hour training requirements, which include techniques, anatomy and the writings of traditional yoga.

Dahn Yoga classes at the Albuquerque centers consist of stretching, tapping on the body with hands, breathing exercises and "brain respiration," which Dahn describes as "integrated exercises for the body and mind." The classes conclude with tea with the teacher and classmates.

These classes, skeptics and enthusiasts agree, are beneficial and fun.

It is the next level of the Dahn Yoga experience that invites suspicion, skeptics say.

`Hook, line and sinker'

Demarco, a 19-year-old UNM sophomore, and 25-year-old waitress Barbara Ryckman say they both enjoyed Dahn Yoga classes at the Nob Hill and Cottonwood centers.

Within three months of their first session last fall, they said, their lives revolved around classes and office work they put in at the centers to get a discount membership.

"I felt so awesome after every class," Ryckman said.

"The next thing you know, hook, line and sinker," Ryckman said.

Looking back, she says, she felt pressured to take classes beyond her budget and was surprised to realize she had spent about $1,000 on classes, uniforms and seminars.

"It's really welcoming and a warm place, but at the same time, it's a business," Ryckman said. "It is really high pressure. and they expected a lot of commitment from me."

Demarco said she felt the same high pressure for commitment, but she said she assumed it was part of a Korean cultural tradition she didn't understand.

Her first meeting at the Dahn Center near Nob Hill was a $20 energy evaluation during which the master tapped his hands on parts of her body and kneaded her intestines to discern energy blocks.

After the first session, Demarco signed up for two months of classes at a student rate of $70 - discounted from $200 - and, she said, a surprise $50 sign-up fee.

"I felt like it helped me," Demarco said. "But there was a lot of pressure. If you tell them you're being pushed, they'd say, `Sometimes, people need a push.' "

Last December, Demarco and Ryckman said, their Dahn masters told them they shouldn't miss a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to take a week of training to become an instructor.

Demarco said she couldn't afford the $1,000 tuition, and so Dahn offered a scholarship toward the cost of the seminar, including room and board, and she paid $200.

The two women and about eight others car-pooled from Albuquerque to the retreat center, 40 miles outside of Sedona on a remote desert plot.

The first day, Demarco recalled walking into a training session that she expected would be for learning new stretching or martial arts moves.

Instead, she said, participants were meditating with their "inner child" and "saying sorry to yourself for your inner pain."

"People were hysterically crying, some hitting the ground with their fists. It was freaky," Demarco said. "Imagine 150 people doing this all at once."

She said she and a few others sat in the back of the room pretending to participate "so no one would ask me about it later."

The oddest experience, Demarco said, was the session with Dahn Yoga founder Lee during one of the last days of the retreat.

"We had to meditate for an hour before he entered the room," she said. "People were sobbing before he came in."

He spoke about working for peace and told the group he was "shooting us light through his eyes," Demarco said.

The idea of working for peace was the one positive thing about the retreat for Ryckman and another participant, Peter Zangara, 22, of New Jersey.

"It is a very good notion, and it is not entirely a negative place," Zangara said. "There is a lot of good going on, but it is a little weird, and the money thing really bothered me."

Zangara said he also liked the focus on environmentalism and "fixing the earth."

"But the head guy (Lee) drives a Hummer," he said, the monstrous SUV notorious for its low gas mileage.

Connors, the Dahn Yoga spokeswoman, said the vehicle is necessary for the rough roads around the retreat.

Like Demarco, Zangara and Ryckman each paid about $200 to attend the retreat.

As the end of the week neared, the three were told the next level of classes would cost them each about $8,000.

Ryckman said her enthusiasm for Dahn Yoga and a peace movement stopped right then.

"The whole reason we were there was to do an advertisement for another retreat," she said.

After returning to Albuquerque and New Jersey, Ryckman, Demarco and Zangara started to pull away from Dahn.

"Every day, they would call, or I'd get an e-mail . . . asking, `Do you need a ride? We really miss you,'" Demarco said.

Her family eventually paid off her debt to Dahn and told representatives to stop calling her.

They have.

`Nobody is hoodwinked'

Teresa Lopez, 49, of Santa Fe remembers Demarco from the Sedona retreat. To Lopez, Demarco's energy was negative and blocked.

"But you are always going to have negative people who create negative energy static," Lopez said.

Almost every other person at the retreat was positive and devoted to honoring the experience of the Dahn masters and learning from them, Lopez said.

"I've visited many different (Dahn Yoga) centers and am amazed at the consistency of the members, the classes and the joy I feel wherever I go into these organizations," Lopez said.

Since she started doing Dahn Yoga in Santa Fe about a year ago, she jas been to the Sedona center several times and attends classes in Santa Fe and in Albuquerque. She said she also paid between $4,500 and $5,000 to become a lifetime member, which gives her free classes for life.

Lopez said she has spent years in other training programs looking for what she has found in Dahn Yoga.

"I've never found work that really handled on a holistic basis all of the issues that come up physically as well as emotionally."

She dismissed complaints of cultist activities and scams.

"Nobody is hoodwinked. I've never felt any type of coercion," she said.

Common warnings

Online forums and anti-cult Web sites, though, exhibit warnings from former participants about coercion and more at Dahn centers.

Often cited is a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the Dahn enterprise and leader Ilchi Lee.

In New York, Lee and 11 other Dahn-related entities are listed as defendants in the Julia Siverls wrongful death lawsuit.

Siverls, the 41-year-old who died at the Sedona retreat in 2003, had been involved with Dahn Yoga for about two years before advancing to a master training seminar, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims she was "pressured and coerced" into walking a tightrope 30 feet in the air without safety precautions, that she was secretly drugged with narcotics and that she was forced into the hike that killed her.

The hike, the lawsuit contends, consisted of her five-member group hiking up a mountain while wearing backpacks filled with 40 pounds of rocks and only three, 10-ounce bottles of water and three pieces of fruit for the entire group.

The lawsuit claims she passed out several times starting about 9:30 a.m. but continued, finally collapsing unconscious sometime after 10 a.m. The Siverls' attorney says the hikers didn't call 911 until about 4:30 p.m., after they had called the center.

Adding to the family's trauma, the lawsuit claims family members had to travel to Sedona to get Siverls' body despite the center's claim it would pay for transport costs.

The case is pending in federal court in New York.

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